Anything that involves a 4×4 is bound to be exciting. Add to that the Malaysian rainforest, a horrendously muddy jungle trekk and it’s one exhilirating adventure.
I signed up for the adventure tour offered by the guesthouse and thinking it was just one of the usual tours, I didn’t expect it to be a real jungle experience.
After driving 45 minutes from Tanah Rata on board a Landrover, we reached the turn-off to the jungle. Our party of 9 included me, a Japanese guy rom the same guesthouse, 3 Singaporean ladies (who joined us from another 4×4), an elderly South African couple, and a young German couple. Our guides were bespectacled Spencer and Balan.
Into the jungle
About a hundred meters with the slippery road climbing up, the 4×4 got stuck and wouldn’t budge but tilted precariously on its sides. We opted to just walk until we reached a small plateau. “They should have briefed us about this,” commented the South AFrican woman. She was in flats and didn’t know how she would walk in all that mud. I pointed out to her parts of the ground that seemed stable and wouldn’t sink when stepped on. The 4×4 finally unstuck itself and made its way up where we were waiting. On board, I admit I was getting scared. The winding road through the Sierra Madre mountains in Casiguran, Aurora which I took last summer suddenly seemed like the superhighway. The thick rain forest enveloped us on both sides. It was the most anxiety-inducing 20 minutes of my life. Finally we reached the drop-off. Balan stayed behind as he wanted to “repair the road a bit.” With his Indiana Jones-like appearance, the idea of the road being repaired by the big and burly Indian seemed somewhat comforting.
At the trailhead, an Orang Asli presented us crowns made of fern which we wore on our heads. It was a way of welcoming us, said Spencer. We crossed a rickety narrow bamboo bridge and made our way deep into the jungle. It was raining lightly which made the already muddy trail even muddier.
It was on mostly flat terrain and everywhere was bamboo, thick trees that soared way over our heads and all kinds of plants. Spencer said that there were snakes, small bears, mouse deer, and tigers. I think the last one was more of a joke. But then again there are really Malaysian tigers. The South African daddy was slipping so much and kept on yelling. Not using any of the walking sticks provided at the trail head and his umbrella getting caught in the vines and bushes hanging overhead, it was bound to happen. At least he was a good sport and I gotta give it to him and his wife, they were at a pace reasonably fast for their age and lack of trekking experience. Actually, I was the only one who has trekking experience. The 3 Singaporeans came in low heels. Fortunately, there were rubber boots and shoes available . It would have been a disaster for everyone if they walked on their heels. We passed by a pretty waterfall which was the first of 7 that could be found in the mountain.
The walk was really exhilerating as there were trees and plants I have never seen before. There were orchids that grew only at that particular area in the jungle where we saw them. Wild bananas loomed above us with leaves so wide they could cover an entire table. There was also a pretty reddish wild ginger. The foliage was so thick that it blocked the sky so even if it had stopped raining, water from the leaves would continually fall.
The sound of rushing water greeted us as we reached a clearing strewn with cut bamboo. This would be our stopover for some bamboo water on the trekk back, Spencer explained. That was good news to me as I had forgotten to bring some water and my snack was sweet fried donuts I brought from KL.
We negotiated a couple of streams and a river and a couple of hundreds of meters later we finally reached what we came for–the rafflesia.
It’s a mushroom not a flower
Just like the tomato which is a fruit and not a vegetable coz of its seeds, the rafflesia is a type of fungus and not a flower as explained by Spencer. It sure does look like a flower with 5 petals but it has no leaves and stem. And according to their research, it’s actually a mushroom. So let it be announced to the world that the rafflesia–named after Sir Raffles who discovered it—is the world’s biggest mushroom. Honestly, I w0uld rather retain it as the world’s biggest flower. Mushroom doesn’t make it very appealing.
The one we saw was 2 days old, hence it didn’t smell much. They’re supposed to start stinking after 4 days before they finally die. Other things we learned about the rafflesia: it isn’t poisonous as the Orang Asli (the indigenous people) actually eat when it’s still bulb-shaped and feed it to women who have just given birth to help them get well faster; it attracts insects and eats them; it only lives for a few days then dies and it never grows in the same place more than once; and it usually has 5 petals, Spencer has seen a 6-petal one only once. The Jap who smelled the flower said it smelled like cheese. Thepetals were thick and leathery. It really looked pretty and colorful in the middle of the dark and gloomy jungle.
The rafflesia was discovered in this part of Malaysia, in Gunung Tunggul in the state of Kedar only 9 years ago. The highway we had come through was only built 5 years ago and used to be a logging road that cut through the jungle. When they started the tours about 3 years ago, it required a 6 hour trek and an overnight in the village .
The Orang Asli used to harvest the rafflesia buds and boil them like cabbage and feed them to women who had just given birth. It was supposed to make them strong, recover faster, and heal their wounds. To preserve the rafflesia, the government explained to them its importance and made it profitable for them by paying them to take care of it. Found also in Borneo, Sarawak, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the rafflesia which is found in certain pockets in the rainforests of Malaysia more or less bloom year-round except for a couple of days. We also saw a couple of buds that were still closed and there were labels marking them. Spencer says that only the Orang Asli can find the rafflesia so it’s impossible to go into the jungle without them.
The trail continued up as its actually possible to summit the mountain and even see all 7 waterfalls. But we had only come to see the rafflesia and it was time to retrace our steps. When we got to the clearing, it was a short climb down to the waterfall. No one had brought a change of clothes so we just waded. I would have wanted to hang-out longer but fear of mosquitos made me clamber back-up to the clearing.
Our Orang Asli guide cut some newly-felled bamboo. Surprise, surpise! There was water inside the bamboo. It was cool and slightly sweet.
Balan had indeed patched-up the road as it semmed less bumpy and nerve-wracking. After witnessing a 4×4 rolling on its side a couple of times on a ride at Pinatubo, all I c0uld think about was how to keep the vehicle steady. Going down the mountain, we could see the highway. The juxtaposition of the muddy jungle road we were on and the highway on the right side down below is an image I will never forget.
Translated as “genuine people,” the Orang Asli are the aboriginal people of Malaysia. Since the highway was built, the government asked them to move nearer the main road so they have more ready access to education and health care which is free for them. With no means of sustaining a living except for farming their own vegetables, the guides pay them for each tour they bring. The village we went to was just a few meters from the side of the highway and made mostly of wooden shacks on stilts. We were given a blowpipe demonstration and I got to try it and even hitting the target. Hunting, like their other practices are no longer existent.
After my frustration in turning back at Trail 9 and not being able to climb Gunung Brinchang because of the rains and lack of daylight time, the jungle trekk made up for it and even whetted my appetite for more.
What makes Cameron Highlands really interesting is the number of hiking trails and mountains you can climb from easy ones to really strenuous walks up mist-covered mountains.
The jungle trekk was over and it was time for the tea plantiona d strawberry farm visit. As the caucasians only signed up for the jungle trekk, it was only me, the Jap, and the Singaporeans with Balan and his 4×4 to continue the tour.